Fidel Castro: Neither a saint nor a villain, but a revolutionary

Since the man known as the “Maximum Leader” passed away, what has been written about him has failed to capture his complexity

Yossi Mekelberg
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Considering the numerous assassination attempts on his life, some argue 638 since he came to power in 1959, it is nothing short of a miracle that former Cuban leader Fidel Castro died peacefully of natural causes at the grand old age of 90. He outlasted 11 US presidents, the country where most of these plots were deigned to have originated. Since it was announced that the leader of the Cuban Revolution passed away, there have been strikingly contrasting reactions to his death, from praise and admiration to complete vilification; from genuine sorrow in Havana to misplaced jubilation in Miami.

Since the man known as the “Maximum Leader” passed away, much of what has been written about him has failed to capture the complexity of his character, the unforgiving environment in which he had to operate and his utter inexperience when he came to power at the very young age of 32. He was steering a revolution under constant hostility from a colossal enemy situated only 90 miles away. A group of young revolutionaries dismayed by the oppression and deprivation inflicted by the corrupt regime of Fulgenico Batista, took it upon themselves to bring a much needed radical change, battling against the odds. The initial 82 would-be guerrilla fighters led by Fidel, his brother Raul and Che Guevara that set sail from Mexico on an overcrowded small yacht, were mainly equipped with ideals and convictions when they landed in the Cuban Sierra Maestra.


Their success was not necessarily due to superior military tactics, but instead thanks to popular support. Cubans longed for leadership that would resist exploitation by a small class of landlords, rebel against an incompetent and despotic government and get rid of US gangsters and exploitative businessmen who had turned Cuba into their playground.

The Castro brothers’ family background does not indicate an obvious inclination to revolutionary politics. They were born to a well-to-do farmer father, who originated from Spain. Fidel’s first wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart, who he met during his law studies in the University of Havana, was the daughter of a wealthy prominent politician. In his idealism he, as most of the other “bearded,” renounced privilege for the sake of bettering the lives of his fellow countrymen. However, no politician, most certainly not a revolutionary one, can lead his people to victory and consolidate his power for as long as Castro did without toughness, determination and yes, a streak of ruthlessness.

It is impossible to understand Cuba, the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro in isolation from the relationship with the United States and the latter’s relentless attempts to dominate its neighboring island

Yossi Mekelberg

It is impossible to understand Cuba, the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro in isolation from the relationship with the United States and the latter’s relentless attempts to dominate its neighboring island. From failed attempts to purchase Cuba, to occupying it at the end of the 19th century and imposing the very restrictive Platt Amendment and later meddling in Cuban politics, the US has cast a long shadow over Cuban lives. After Castro came to power, Washington tried time and again to topple the Castro government, invade the island and to eliminate him.

The US in its Cold War short-sightedness, confused Soviet Union style communism with a bunch of well-intentioned very young revolutionaries in search of social justice and equal rights for all, who were at times short of answers. President Eisenhower and his successor John F. Kennedy through imposing an embargo and orchestrating the Bay of Pigs invasion pushed Castro into the hands of the Soviet Union, instead of having a genuine dialogue with him. What choice was left for Castro when a superpower on his doorstep was after him?

Fidel Castro was not the villain that his enemies try to portray him as, though to suggest that he could do no wrong would be equally unwise. No violation of human rights can be justified, the execution of political opponents is completely wrong, as is their incarceration. It is also wrong to justify any of these types of actions with the excuse that it is OK because others do it – I do not believe in human rights relativism. Nevertheless, the Cuban revolution was one of the least violent revolutions in history. To be sure, the US is far from having the moral right to cast the first stone, considering that it still occupies part of Cuba, where it has tortured people and imprisoned them for years without trial. Moreover, the US embargo on Cuba caused endless suffering in the lives of the Cuban people by making basic commodities scarce, expensive and beyond the reach of ordinary Cubans. It was not only the punishing US measures that hurt Cuba, but in the post-Cold War era the country was also abandoned by Russia, which after the disintegration of the Soviet Union stopped almost all assistance. This led to the “special period” of the 1990s, leaving Cuba on the verge of complete economic collapse. Cubans in their typical manner and Castro’s leadership responded with even more resourcefulness and vitality, refusing to cave into external dictate.

Castro was a very confident and a single-minded leader, but at the same time also harbored strong reflective intellectual inclinations. In my visits to Cuba, including one only a few weeks ago, I met Cubans that were critical of the excessively slow economic development and poverty on the island. However, many of them from diverse walks of life were quick to praise the exceptional universally free education and health systems, the availability of cost-free accommodation and a low level of crime. In a country with an income per-capita that is a fraction of that of the US, life expectancy is still higher than that of the US. Over the last decade the country opened up slowly and gradually to free market reforms. It takes planning, patience and courage to move away from a totally centralized economy and to let some level of capitalism enter into the system. Youth in Cuba long for economic, political and social improvements, but without discarding the values and the legacy of the revolution and Fidel Castro himself.

One can only speculate that Fidel Castro, the most recognizable revolutionary of the 20th century, together with his comrade Che Guevara, would have cherished the fiery debate that his death evoked around the world. If he could answer all his critics, he would probably have repeated what he told his judges who locked him behind bars in 1953: “History will absolve me.”


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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